The Spoils – White guilt and the monied left. (Theatre Review)
Flight Path Theatre
From 29 January to 8 February. You can grab your tickets here.
Images by Clare Hawley
Please note: I attended this production as a full paying ticket holder in order to relay a complete audience member experience. I did not receive any gratuity from a publicist or a production company.
One cannot separate two hard facts from this excellent production of The Spoils currently showing at Flightpath Theatre. The first is that it is written by Jesse Eisenberg who is identifiable in the arts, particularly because his powerhouse performances come from a self-referential style. The other hard fact is that the play was published in 2016, the year that racism and sexism in white men became a dominating political force. Producer Michael Becker and assistant producer Meg Hyeronimus prevent these facts from becoming influences by recognizing them as constraints. This is successfully achieved through Michael Becker’s powerhouse performance of Ben (which is in no way self-referential). Equally, Ian Warwick’s strong indie direction steps away from the bourgeois aesthetic inherent in plays performed on a main stage. Therefore this production of The Spoils gifts writer Jesse Eisenberg a play that can exist separate from himself and his countires 2016 political drama. Under Ian Warwick’s direction, The Spoils deepens into a play that extends beyond its unlikeable lead character.
The Spoils examines the Bad Faith that extends from being ‘supported’ by rich parents. Like Lena Dunham’s premise behind the 2011 series Girls, The Spoils examines three male children of privileged parents each dealing with the gifts that have come their way through no concerted effort of their own. The ironic twist is that the young adults best adjusted to come to terms with this are the kids who chose careers in finance while the arts major, in this case an aspiring film maker, is on a path to potent self-destruction because his self-expression has been entirely crushed due to lack of struggle. We the audience watch in horror as Ben (Michael Becker) spins hopelessly out of control under the witness of his intelligent emotionally gifted friends.
Undoubtedly The Spoils is a dramatic gift to the actor who plays Ben, in this case Michael Becker. However, the play blossoms around this excellent performance, exposing the power money has to corrupt those who wield it. Unseen yet spoken out in reverential terms are the fathers who gave money, and the father figure who chastens one character for his lack of drive. In true Freudian fashion these well-fed boys are either capitulating or resisting the ‘investment’ their parents are making in them. The hapless Ben, a fighter by nature, can’t weaponize his art, and we watch strangely spellbound as he self-destructs and seeks to take his friends down with him. Performed by Jesse Eisenberg, Ben eliminates his own point through an unwelcome ironic twist that dissolves the performances power. In the hands of the tremendously competent Michael Becker, that performance is extended well past the play’s lines into a passionate ode to the lost artist. That creature upon which we pour our disdain, the overprivileged liberal arts student becomes the antenna he should be when performed by Michael Becker. The suffering that will cure us all is surmised in our disdain and this performance reflects it back on ourselves.
This drive to bring the corrupting power of money to the surface is exemplified in Ian Warwick’s direction. Youthful awkwardness imbues the show as we watch these university students clamor for an authentic voice. Sartre’s concept of Bad Faith throbs in every corner of the Irma Calabrese designed faux chic ‘minimalist’ apartment. Through the very simple but clever lighting by Roderick van Gelder, walls illuminate and seem to vibrate in response to the churning emotional stuff successfully sublimated by right choices made in response to their good fortune. However, in the loud-mouthed hands of Ben, art loses its voice and is reduced to nothing more than the garish nightmare of a dickhead white boy. This point is further exemplified by strong performances from Haydan Hawkins as Ted and Kabir Singh as Kalyan who present as nice guys self-effacing about the fact, they still will finish first. Modesty is the new black.
The aspirational women, still doing what they feel is ‘right’ for humanity, become apologetic when they give voice to their lofty careers. Both Sarah (a sublime performance from Isabel Dickson) and Reshma (an appropriately prickly Rebecca Abdel-Messih) partner up with men beneath them and both describe their partner as being able to ‘take care of them.’ Oppressed and endlessly burdened with white guilt the women continue in their roles as muse for the men in their life and continue to see their partners as their economic salvation. These performances offer us women who position themselves against the abyss for their men. They do ‘good works dressed up as a career so that their partners can overperform in the real world of finance guilt free.
The resulting clash between the kid who hates himself and the kids who accept it all and comply is made all the more interesting when the compliant kids are those from non-white backgrounds. Race in the hands of Jesse Eisenberg is a football that gets kicked, carried, wielded and preserved in turn, used more as a liability or an asset in the game of life than a physical attribute over which we have no control.
This production of The Spoils is a fantastic start to the year for Flight Path theatre. The space has a strong theatrical legacy to live up to (some of the best plays of 2018 I saw in that space) but The Spoils is a very strong start and bodes well for an exciting 2020. Equally, the wit and wisdom of Michael Becker and Ian Warwick and their wonderful take on capitalism is warmly welcomed and very exciting to witness. I for one am looking forward to their future projects and am very glad to have this kind of new exciting voice on the Sydney stages.
The Spoils is an excellent production for those interested in white guilt, the corrupting power of money, the influence of money on art, film, Jesse Eisenberg, independent theatres influence and contemporary New York lifestyle.